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LAS VEGAS—Millions of computer users participate in software beta programs every year, usually toiling away in anonymity, never quite sure if whatever they find or report will matter in the final product. Others find the experience a lot more fulfilling, such as the families that participated in Microsoft’s Life with Windows Vista program.

In addition to the more than 2 million testers of Vista, Microsoft selected 50 families from around the world and watched, in a reality TV kind of way, how they interacted with Vista, right out of the box with the first beta and all the way up to release to manufacturing.

The families began the testing program with an early beta of Vista, and were videotaped and interviewed periodically over the last year and a half. Testers were able to give feedback on any usage feature whenever they wanted. They received several builds of Vista along the way.

Robin Mason, of Peoria, Ariz., says she considered herself a moderate computer user, but that she had some special needs for her computer. Mason, a digital scrapbooker, works with about 5,000 images and 40,000 scrapbooking elements on a regular basis.

Ease in organizing and accessing the images was critical for her, so she paid close attention to the way the new Photo Gallery feature evolved in Vista.

“They made it better with each build,” she said here at International CES. “I liked the way the icons were transparent, and tagging made easy.”

Richard Russell, developer manager of Microsoft’s Core Operating System Division, said the family feedback was invaluable.

“End-to-end scenarios were very important for us,” he said. “We did Vista design and implementation based on the feedback and also used the feedback to validate our assumptions” on what features worked or didn’t.

The family feedback was a small but important part of Vista’s immense beta program. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in November at Vista’s business launch that Microsoft had logged more than 1 billion user interactions on Vista or Office 2007 usability.

Much of the data was collected passively or behind the scenes, and was funneled to databases for mining information. Russell said the system generated “gigabytes” of data reports, which were delivered directly to the developer teams and available in real time.

Officials said the Life with Windows Vista families were responsible for finding more than 800 bugs that were not caught in other parts of the beta program. Some users were even able to put their own stamp on Vista.

Originally, Vista was not planned to include a CD or DVD “burn” button on the Windows Explorer or Photo Gallery windows. Melissa Regan of Germantown, Md., insisted on it, however, and Microsoft developers found a way to include the function.

Mason’s daughter Cassidy also played a role in the family’s feedback. “The testing really enabled us to work together,” Robin Mason said.

Now, with the consumer launch of Vista due late this month, the testing is over, and Mason said she will miss the relationship she build up with Microsoft representatives and developers.

“The end of the journey makes me kind of sad,” she said “It was really exciting to be a part of it, and 10 years from now I can say that I was involved in this.”

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